In 1860, the Pony Express delivered its first letters from Missouri to California in just over ten days.¹ This speed was unprecedented in the burgeoning west and proved the viability of “high-speed” communications to the area, forging a connection with the American Frontier. The Pony Express was short-lived and quickly replaced by telegraph lines, but the legend endures.
When Google started operations in 2001, it wasn’t the first search engine. But it quickly dominated the internet and forged a similar, much needed connection to the web. There is no real limit to the number of websites out there so the opportunities are endless, but Google gave a way to make sense of that and find what you needed. At first, their methods were innovative but rudimentary - like the Pony Express system of relay riders to prove that a cross-country mail system could exist. It was a system ripe for “black hats” to take advantage of with practises like link buying and keyword stuffing to boost their rankings. But it’s been twenty years since then - enough time for Google to not only set up a telegraph line, but also a railway, advanced infrastructure, and police to enforce the rule of law. In short, Google has civilized itself. So why are there still “SEO experts” peddling snake oil and planning stagecoach heists?
Google in 2021: The Taming of the Wild West
Google has some of the most advanced technology available, which means they’ve evolved beyond the days when they just scraped websites to find the query string. Today, SEO is about so much more than having the right keywords. Starting in 2011, Google released a series of updates to their ranking algorithm which introduced a “quality score” to judge websites beyond search query relevance.
A brief history of Google ranking don’ts²:
2011: Keyword stuffing, spam, or plagiarized content
2012: Irrelevant links or links with over-optimized anchors, slow site speeds, old content
2013: Low quality content - rankings by user intent rather than just queries
2015: Poor usability on mobile (or no usability at all)
2017: Aggressive interstitials or popups
2018: Slow mobile site speed, “your money or your life”, and other scammy tactics
2019: Poor quality writing - use of natural language processing to judge your content
2021: Bad user experience - confusing or jumping elements³
Google, as a corporation, looks out for its own best interests. This means consistently delivering the highest quality and most relevant results for what their users are looking for. Through the years they have developed and used several new technologies to achieve this end. Natural language processing (NLP) is the art of teaching a computer to read; it’s an algorithm that moves search results beyond character matching to add the context of intent and quality of writing to the search. Machine learning (ML) is a form of artificial intelligence that teaches a computer how to improve itself through trial and error. This process drives a number of improvements, such as NLP, personalization, and relevancy.
These tools and improvements, like the railroad and the telegraph, paved the way for an infrastructure that would change the balance of power and allow Google to rout out bad actors.
Navigating the New West: Steer Clear of Snake Oil Salesmen and Black Hats
When Google got started, it had no way to sort out good actors from bad, or white hats from black hats. This power imbalance, like the single underfunded sheriff surrounded by miles of unsavoury outlaws, led to opportunism and gleeful manipulation. Small, easy changes led to domination of the search results. SEO opportunists would take a popular query such as “boots for sale” and stuff it a thousand times over into a website. Google’s algorithm would see a thousand instances of “boots for sale” on a website and rank it at the top of the results for that query. When Google started adding weight for site popularity based on the number of other sites linking back to the one in question, the opportunists got to work buying placements for their links all over the web and dropping the links into forums and comment sections. For a while, these tactics worked. There was only one sheriff after all and Google employees couldn’t sift through millions of results to determine the bad actors. Not yet, anyway.
With the technology improvements over the last decade, Google is now about a hundred steps ahead of these types of SEO outlaws. The system is able to pick out tactics like keyword stuffing and link buying instantly and the punishment is swift and brutal. Sites get blacklisted, removing their only link to their users by disappearing from search results completely.⁴ And getting back in is a lengthy and gruelling process, requiring stripping your site of any transgressions and scouring the realm of the internet for bad faith links to your site that may exist. It can take months or even years to convince Google that you’ve changed your ways; in most cases, it’s best to just abandon the project completely and start anew.
If an agency promises you hacks to boost your search results like buying links, keywords stuffing, or other black hat methods, beware. At best, these are snake oils - miracle cures. At worst, these are the outlaw relics of a time long past and the sheriff is most definitely in town.
White Hat SEO: Getting on the Sheriff’s Good Side
You’ve done everything right. You’ve got a great service that brings value to your users. So if you can’t use the black hat tricks, what can you do to make sure Google knows how awesome you are? The answer is pretty simple: deliver a great experience.
Google takes all sorts of metrics into account when assessing your website: site speed, mobile compatibility, content quality, interactivity, relevancy, clout, and user experience.³ The best way to improve your search ranking is to look at your site through a user’s eyes. Can they find what they need? Do they get real value from your content? Is there anything frustrating or confusing? How high is the quality of the writing? By focusing on the user and delivering the best possible experience, Google will take note. For that matter, so will other websites with a high impact and that all ties back into how Google will rank your site for a given query.
Find an agency that understands these principles. Knowing what people are searching for, making sure your content is both of the highest quality and relevant, and improving your on-site experience are the hallmarks of a civilised SEO strategy. Saddle up, put on your white hat and ride forth to the great frontier.
Settle, Raymond & Settle, Mary. 1972. “Saddles and Spurs: The Pony Express Saga.” Accessed February 26, 2021. https://books.google.ca/books?id=_5xz6d9W5AoC&pg=PP1
Moz. 2021. “Google Algorithm Update History.” Accessed February 26, 2021. https://moz.com/google-algorithm-change
Google. May 28, 2020. “Evaluating page experience for a better web.” Accessed February 26, 2021. https://developers.google.com/search/blog/2020/05/evaluating-page-experience
Creative Bloq Staff. April 6, 2011. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.creativebloq.com/netmag/google-seo-tricks-will-get-you-blacklisted-4117053